For several days before she was forced to resign, Shirley Sherrod saw the storm clouds gathering.
Sherrod, 65, recounts in a new book, "The Courage to Hope: How I Stood up to the Politics of Fear," she had found out that a videotape had surfaced which cast her in a bad light. Despite her efforts to alert her bosses in Washington and get their help, Sherrod said the furor of her distorted comments led to her being placed on administrative leave, being forced to tender her resignation at the side of a lonely Georgia road and condemnation from officials in the White House, the NAACP and the U.S. Department of Agriculture.
Sherrod told an audience at the Oxon Hill Library during a conversation with Washington Informer Publisher Denise Rolark Barnes that the late conservative blogger Andrew Breitbart doctored the video of a speech she had given in Georgia to make it appear as if she was racist.
"Five days earlier is when I had learned about the existence of a tape," Sherrod said during two separate interviews. "I got a message saying I should be ashamed of myself for discriminating against a white man and working for the government. I notified the USDA in the hopes that they would assist me. They didn't help. I thought they'd work with me to get to the truth; I knew it would be explosive."
"Calls came into the state and national offices. My secretary was almost in tears. I was with my staff at a tour of a KIA plant and I waited for a call that never came. I was in rush-hour traffic and I was told that the White House wanted my resignation. Cheryl Cook called me and told me to pull to the side of the road and use my Blackberry and offer my resignation."
Sherrod said the incident in question happened two decades prior to her 2010 firing and said she had given the speech any number of times as an example of the transformation that had taken place in her life.
"I had been telling that story for 25 years. He [the farmer] came to me in 1986 but I realized that all the issues weren't black and white, it's about being poor."
Stories by an Atlanta Journal Constitution reporter in Atlanta and another from CNN in Los Angeles is what led to those now-embarrassed officials who had initially condemned her to reverse themselves.
"This all started unfolding the next day on Monday, July 19," she said. "The next day, they finally realized that they needed to listen to the tape. They knew by then that they'd made a mistake. I told the young man from the Journal that if he wanted the truth, I was willing to talk to him. I told him all of it and he said he knew there was more to it. The truth started coming out after midnight that night."
Sherrod, the first black state director for rural development in Georgia, recalls being in an interview on CNN when the anchor told her there was someone on the telephone who wanted to talk to her. It was the same farmer, Roger Spooner, who she was supposed to have refused to help because he was white. However, during the course of the conversation, he refuted the lies and aspersions cast on Sherrod, explained how she had saved his farm and added that he counted her as a friend.
The farmer's willingness to defend her was the linchpin in her defense, Sherrod said.
But her story is much more than that one incident. She grew up in Baker County at a time when the conditions under which black people lived could best be described as deplorable. A deep, pervasive and arbitrary racism shadowed blacks with a randomness she said troubles her to this day. Her father owned about 175 acres of land and share-cropped it with other farmers.
Sheriff L. Warren Johnson, who chose to go by the name "Gator" ruled the county.
"He killed a lot of black people in his lifetime," said Sherrod. "Gator ruled. He had a speed trap and collected money from everyone who didn't have a Baker County tag. According to the Atlanta Journal Constitution, in the '60s, he collected about $150,000 a year. I went to segregated schools, worked on a farm and was living under these conditions. It was awful. I wanted to get away from there. As I picked cotton, I would talk to the sun and say, 'Just wait."'
Tragedy struck in 1965 when a white farmer murdered Sherrod's father, leaving behind a pregnant wife and five daughters.
"I had to do something. I could take up a gun and kill the man," she said. "That night, I made a commitment to stay in the South and work for change. She is married to noted Civil Rights activist Charles Sherrod, who was a field secretary for the Student Nonviolent Coordinating Committee [SNCC] and with whom she has worked over the past several decades to blunt the spread of racism and discrimination.
As a high-ranking official in the U.S. Department of Agriculture [USDA], Sherrod fought to keep both black and white farmers on their land. She spoke of the racism that permeates the USDA and efforts by black farmers to combat this while also trying to fend off attempts by the agency to take their land.
Sherrod became an advocate for farmers.
"Because of how difficult it is for older black farmers, younger black men and women don't want to do it. I [got] the reputation for being able to go into those offices and making them do the right thing. You have to learn the regulations working in those offices," she said.
After these many years of standing at the forefront of the struggle against racism, Sherrod said there is much work to be done with regard to race relations.
"I had hoped that we would be far beyond where we are on the issue of race. We take two steps forward and three back. It seems that we can't deal with it openly without wounds being open. I hope we will [make progress] with these younger people. I know this will continue to be a problem for those who want to fight the Civil War again."